When North West River’s Labrador Interpretation Centre was finished being built, no less a personage than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II came all the way from London, England, to dedicate its opening.
Well, she wasn’t in Canada just for that event, but nevertheless she was under no obligation to get involved, so her attendance can only be seen as a high honour.
Over the many years of her reign, Elizabeth II has proven herself to be remarkably knowledgeable and wise. She also displays abundant self-respect and she’s never seen to squander it.
She’s not someone who goes around cutting ribbons at the grand openings of shopping malls, bowling alleys, ice-cream parlours or roadside attractions.
If she’s to allow her name to be etched in bronze and bolted to the side of a building, that building better be a good one.
It had better perform a worthwhile public service.
The Labrador Interpretation Centre is just such a building. In short, it’s a storyteller.
It’s not a museum per se, although it does hold a fair number of the region’s historic and cultural artifacts.
Nor is it an art gallery, per se, although several priceless creations adorn its walls and floors: the permanent collection includes a pen-and-ink mural by Boyd Warren Chubbs and a serpentine sculpture by Gilbert Hay, while a temporary exhibit now shows pieces of art from around the whole province.
By being both museum and gallery, and by being even more than those combined, the centre seeks to tell the whole story of Labrador and of all the peoples of Labrador. The story is not only intended to introduce visitors to life in the Big Land, but also to remind Labradorians themselves of their rich, diverse and (above all) shared culture.
A walk through the main hall reveals glimpses into a long history. On one side a fisherman returns with a catch of cod to where his family dries and salts the fish. Elsewhere, a shaking tent awaits an Innu shaman.
Opposite that, two children use wooden buckets to draw water from a hole in the ice and in the middle an Inuk man paddles his sealskin kayak (a real one) between treacherous floes. All is there for everyone to see and read and hear about, everything fully interpreted through printed words and audio recordings.
In addition, the centre provides a place for those cultures to actually meet, learn and grow together. Schoolchildren from all over Labrador use it to display and answer questions about their Heritage Day research — stories of themselves and their families. Also, the place has hosted conferences and other events for people to discuss Labrador’s past, present and future. The centre’s built-in theatre serves these serious needs admirably, but it also provides the only venue in town for more creative shows, like Christmastime passion plays and other kinds of musical performances.
But no more.
As recently reported in The Labradorian (and repeated in disbelief by many who’ve heard the news), the Labrador Interpretation Centre is another victim of Newfoundland’s latest slash-and-burn budget. From now on, it will be closed for the winter. Why? Well, there’s simply no point in keeping it open.
“In keeping with the lack of demand during the off-season … the Labrador location will be moved from a year-round operation to a
seasonal operation,” announced Tourism Minister Terry French. “In 2012, the centre experienced a reduction of 30 per cent in visitation over 2011. Although the centre recorded slightly more than 600 visits during the past winter season.”
That’s it: 600 just isn’t enough — no matter that it’s more than twice the population of the host community. By using this flimsy excuse, the provincial government is unintentionally revealing that the only thing important to its calculations are the people who come from away.
French promises to temporarily reopen the centre as needed, but a museum official has already declared that to be virtually impossible.
Elizabeth II dedicated the interpretation centre to the people of Labrador, but the PC party has
now declared it doesn’t belong to Labradorians at all. Like everything in Labrador it’s the property of the Newfoundland government, and that government will dispose of it any way it sees fit.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.